| January 23,2012 12:00 pm IST


you won't
believe me
it sings
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth…
( Pablo Neruda, Ode to Salt)

Salt is just Sodium Chloride for you and me. Salt, to a movie fan, could also mean Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt in the 2010 thriller movie. And to Pablo Neruda, poet extraordinaire, salt was “The Dust of the Sea”.

To an elderly freedom fighter, salt is Gandhiji’s Dandi March against the British Salt Act of 1882.Perhaps it also reminds one of an introductory Economics class in the first semester of management- discussing public goods taxation and pricing fundamentals.

In the Bible, The Sermon on the Mount, as in the Gospel of St.Matthew 5:13 says knowingly: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”

This article is on the “Salt of the Earth Manager”- a down to earth, loved human being, who adds flavor to his/her working environment and is always remembered with affection.

During a lively brunch, I happened to listen in to very senior officers recounting the best bosses they had worked for. Their faces shone, gestures became animated, and laughter shimmied around luminously as the best ‘managers’ of men were described for juniors.

“ He ensured that his own trusted driver took me home, driving all night, when my father fell sick- and I had just joined probation”, said someone who was about to retire. Almost thirty five years into service, the memory of a benevolent first boss stood out sparkling in his memory.

“Oh the way she mentored me. Took time from the busy schedule and almost taught me the basics of grievance redressal from scratch. Imagine, such a senior person and a totally newcomer like me?”

“When a senior officer yelled at me during a meeting, my boss spoke up for me and pointed out that I had just been two months into the job and that if at all someone was to be blamed, it was him. I will never forget that stance of his! I have always tried to follow that principle in my career too.”

“So there I was – the decision had to be taken in five minutes and I just called him up as a last resort for counsel. He said, ‘Partner- tell me is your decision going to start a fire?’ I said, no sir. He laughed and said,’ Go ahead with your common sense’. Whew! Shall never forget that way of handling a crisis!”

Interestingly, during the lively discussions, when the topic veered to the “unsalted ones in their memories”, one of the audience commented, “You know, whenever he walked in, we all fell silent…how strange it was. Never felt comfortable around him”.

I thought of strict teachers who made us silent in class, elder relatives who smothered discussions at home, friends with whom one never truly opened up, managers who made us tense with unpredictable behaviors.

Sipping warm coffee, and listening to tales of sagacity and wit, I drew my own conclusions:

  • It is important to be an authentic, salt-of-the-earth human being to be an inspiring leader
  • Good old Maslow was right all along! There is something very attractive in the Theory Y manager, who creates openness and warmth and trust in his working environment.
  • Being compassionate, empathetic, humorous and balanced is as important as being analytical, efficient and systematic in one’s job. Both complement each other to make the manager truly effective
  • People do not remember a good leader for the “things” he did- they remember him for “the way he made them feel”.

All of the above sound like clichés from a Feel Good magazine! But what the heck, if after 35 years, one of my team members were to wax eloquent on my great management style, bhai, I will order two more packets of that great dust of the sea, right now!